Life with MS

Hit The Beach

By Deborah Van Brunt
No longer do sun-loving folks in wheelchairs or with gait impairments need to perform a near Herculean task to get onto the beach! Here's the lowdown on accessible beach bumming.
Beach wheelchairs
Manual wheelchairs with fat, balloon-style wheels were the first breakthrough for beach access in the late 80s. The wide wheels prevent sinking in the sand and can roll into gentle surf up to a few inches deep. Beach wheelchairs, from the original PVC models to corrosion-resistant, stainless steel chairs, run between $1,200 and $2,700. You can borrow a manual beach wheelchair at many beaches and even some hotels across the country, including lakeshore areas.
If you're not familiar with a particular beach that loans beach wheelchairs, call first and ask questions:
  • Where are the chairs located?
  • Do you need an able-bodied friend to help?
  • Are reservations needed?
  • Do you need to transport it to the beach area?
  • If so, what kind of vehicle can carry it?
  • Does the chair have fixed armrests and/or footrests that can make transfers tricky?
Most chairs for loan have no cushions, wedges, chest belts, or headrests, although you may be able to use your own. Beach wheelchairs generally must be pushed from behind; those advertised as self-propelled usually require the upper body of Atlas. Bells and whistles may be available in the form of colorful umbrellas, reading stands, drink holders, or even fishing pole holders.
Other assistive devices have recently arrived on the beach scene, but few American beaches currently offer them. There are wheelchairs, in the $2,000 range, for both sand and water. For example, the Tiralo is a rolling-floating lounge chair with three balloon wheels and a long handle in front for pulling across the sand and into water. The Hippocampe is a sleeker, floating design with three, double wide conventional wheels. While popular in Europe, these aquatic devices make our liability-conscious beaches leery.
Battery and solar-powered all-terrain wheelchairs work well on the beach. One model moves like an army tank on tracks. But with starting prices of $8,500, power chairs are not common on public beaches. San Diego beaches loan powers chairs by the hour, a practice that has become quite popular.
Beach wheels
Avid beach bums can buy beach wheels for their own quick release chairs. For example, Playaboule sells, for $500, two 12-inch wide, balloon tires to temporarily replace your chair's back wheels. An able-bodied person can tilt you back (keeping your front wheels up) and pull your chair through soft sand. For $700, Hot Shots offers a set of four balloon tires so your chair's caster wheels remain in place but ride above the terrain without the tilt. Or, bolt your dewheeled chair to Hot Shot's $1,400 chassis with four balloon tires.
Temporary paths of artificial surfaces, an idea that evolved from military vehicles unloading onto a beach or desert, are also improving beach accessibility. Generally, the surfacing comes in rolls or small connecting sections, which form a path over the sand, sometimes all the way to the water's edge. Temporary paths foster independence and eliminate transfers. Even folks with strollers or rolling coolers find the paths easier than crossing on the sand. Most surfacing can be moved with varying degrees of labor, used for a variety of different purposes, and is essentially repair-free. But of course, access is limited to the path. The width, which factors mightily into cost, determines whether two wheelchair riders can pass and/or turn around easily. Depending on the surface, it can get very hot, become slippery if sand is not brushed off, or disconnect under heavy use or extreme tides. The cost of these artificial surfaces varies by model and depends on the square footage to be covered.
Where do we go from here?
Under the ADA, legal guidelines for beach accessibility are slowly churning through the system. In the meantime, we must let decision-makers know that beach access is feasible, affordable, and absolutely worth it!
To improve beach accessibility in your area, ask the lifeguard who the beach manager or local decision maker is, then urge them to consider beach wheelchairs and/or surfacing.
Additional resources:
The National Center on Accessibility conducts consumer research on various recreational products.
For an incomplete, but national, list of beaches with beach wheelchairs, visit

Other resources include:
Deborah Van Brunt co-authored Florida's only statewide access guide, Wheelchairs on the Go: Accessible Fun in Florida.
(Last reviewed 7/2009)